The battle over raw milk is heating up, but both sides are ignoring the most important question: When is it safe to drink?
Earlier this month, armed federal agents stormed Rainbow Acres Farm in the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish Country in a pre-dawn raid. The Food and Drug Administration wants to stop Dan Allgyer, an Amish farmer, from illegally selling raw, unpasteurized milk across state lines.
The raid set off raw milk advocates everywhere, and today, a raw milk buying club in the Washington, D.C. area held a rally on Capitol Hill, complete with a live Jersey cow. It's the latest chapter in a raw food showdown that shows no signs of slowing.
On one hand, a vocal minority of raw milk devotees say that pasteurization destroys important nutrients and point to studies correlating raw milk with lowered rates of asthma and allergies—without acknowledging the many different methods of pasteurization and the lack of systematic testing of milk's digestive or immunological characteristics. On the other hand, federal authorities aren't willing to even engage in the debate, asserting that it's never safe to drink raw milk—without acknowledging outbreaks in pasteurized milk and the fact that clean milk drawn from healthy cows can be relatively sterile.
These irreconcilable positions prevent both sides from seeing how the tools of science can provide a solution.
In a recent article, "In Bacteria Land," published in Gastronomica (subscriber's only), Anne Mendelson, the author of Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, writes that early advances in the germ theory of infectious diseases initially led to plans for a system that would certify clean, uncontaminated raw milk in the United States, which were later scuttled with the rise of large-scale dairying.
Today, Mendelson writes:
Twenty-first-century partisans seem unaware how irresponsible it is to debate so complex a question with more eagerness to discredit opponents than to make common cause against a common enemy: food-borne disease itself... Making raw milk accessible to all who consider themselves constitutionally entitled to do their own research and come to their own conclusions is a recipe for chaos.\n
In short, raw milk is neither a miraculous cure-all, nor a dangerous substance that needs to be relegated to the outlaw fringe of food production. And regardless, it's hard to make the case that milking a cow on Capitol Hill goes very far in advancing a much-needed air of civility.
Poster via Ohio: WPA Art Program/Library of Congress.